‘Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.’
You have been looking forward to this. You picked out your outfit a month ago and are now painting your most subtly sarcastic face on. You have left enough time for yourself to get there without visibly sweating. It will be ambiguous whether or not you arrived in a taxi.
You can do this. You are a fucking shark. Smile. Practise smiling on the tube in a way that won’t alarm too many passengers. The dining hall was once part of the school, but was sold off at some point in the eighties, now hosts parties of its alumni and their cohort instead. You wonder if you can get away with using your compact to look at the famous ceiling fresco. Staring is gauche. Then again, so is reapplying in public. You can see the main building of the school from here, towers orange-outlined in the dusk. Trying not to be too obsequious to the door girls, you wait for them to find you on the list. You can read upside-down and notice that only about half of your classmates have ticks by their names.
Those missing mostly seem to be on second gap years or to have been non-entities.
Before you have to endure the ignominy of approaching anyone and reminding them you still exist, Guy comes up to you with a spare glass of champagne. He is as sweet and oblivious as you remember him. He pontificates on about nothing everything and nothing and manages to tread on your foot in the first five minutes of reacquaintance.
You fell out of contact with almost everyone when you didn’t get in and enough of them went up together to Oxbridge that they felt no need to reach out.
You let Guy lead you into the fray and round the Millies, Sophias and Isabels who are all patronisingly pleased to see you. It’s been ages. What have you been doing? They know perfectly well what you’ve been doing. You are not pleased to see that many of them truly have lost weight. You avoid the part of the room where Sam Vere’s friends are. He is in rehab now.
You have not had enough champagne to mime pity for him. At the time, everyone knew how he was, but some people’s memories are shorter when it comes to those who scare them. The Millies get distracted by Sergei telling a story about the Turkish exploits of somebody who seems to be a friend of everyone’s family but your own. Cocktail drift is happening again. You fight with your tiny handbag, trying to get your phone out and look preoccupied, because looking around like a lost dog is so much worse.
You no longer need the eyes of others on you to feel their judgement. The only thing more frightening than judgement is irrelevance. You are nearing irrelevance, something must be done soon.
Francis sidles over to you and starts talking about the ceiling. You already know that the Stuarts used to hold their secret court here, handing down sentences to noblemen who believed themselves beyond the rule of law. You allow him to explain the allegory of each scene from the fresco, because he is still desperately shy and can’t make personal conversation. Marsyas, Arachne, Prometheus, Tantalus. He has tried and failed to grow a moustache.
They have sat you with the rest of Dashwood, next to people whose faces you remember, but whose names you don’t. Mercifully, there are place cards. The boy directly opposite you is blond, with a light ski-tan and is going into shipping. You have no idea what shipping is and suspect he doesn’t either. You put all the roughness that years of smoking have given your voice into use, until you find out he has a long-term girlfriend. Who is also blonde. You attempt to imply you are living in your parents’ flat rather than with your parents, and that your internship is leading somewhere, which it categorically is not.
They bring the steak, suitably rare and there is silence. You ruminate on the likelihood that you will never have to pay for these dinners. You will probably never hit the minimum salary needed to make the monthly donations the school is trying to soften all of you up for.
The girl on your left is too small to finish her steak, she has left more than half, but has been taking full advantage of the vase-like capacity of the wine glasses. She asks you if you were really happy then. You don’t think anybody was, but that wasn’t the point. You make a joke about the fact that everything was run by old boys who misunderstood that “From Quad to Quad to Quad” meant you were supposed to progress from Oxbridge to Chambers, not back to school. Many of them were old enough to have been to all-male colleges. She tells you some horror stories about the racism she experienced, which does not surprise you. You can’t think of the last time you were surprised.
One of the Tristans went out for a cigarette between courses and is clearly too drunk to be let back in. If you turn your head a little bit, you can see him arguing with the staff, getting progressively pinker-faced. Pudding is bits of artfully arranged pear and, frankly, inedible. You have two simultaneous headaches, one from smiling, and one from the weight of your hair. You eventually spot the loo door in the corner, indistinguishable from the panelling except for its handle.
Cassia is in there, redrawing her features. You can see her looking at the fallen hem on your dress and smile in order to show your teeth. You used to be friends and talk excitedly about how you should definitely go for coffee You remember the times you had to carry her home and sleep on her sofa because not one of the boys could be trusted.
You look in the mirror and remind yourself that you could eat any one of them whole and swallow down the bones. But you are good and compliant and overt viciousness is only for people who have nothing to give you.
Just as you have reached the zenith of your private fury, you are disappointed to find things drawing to a close over the port. The Chinless Wonders are getting up to leave; you notice their goodbyes are somewhat more effusive than they used to be. There is a house party happening in Chelsea to which you are not sufficiently brazen to invite yourself.
Ollie has been seated on the other side of the room, but as you are making insincere movements towards the door, he stops you. He and some of the others who you liked better, are heading to Chris Fitzpatrick’s new place, a few streets away. You step out from under the ceiling to the sky, boundless but unadorned.
Chris is basically an ambulatory nostril and has been as long as you’ve known him. When you ask him what he’s doing at the moment, he claims to be running a club night in Brixton. He has a complicated lighting system in his flat that only the Nicaraguan cleaner understands how to work. Chris’s best friend from university is sleeping “in his spare room” while his girlfriend is doing a Masters elsewhere. His best friend is too toothily enthusiastic for after 10pm and you fantasise about staving his head in with your shoe. At least you would get to take your shoe off.